Hungry eyeballs

Food bloggers find financial success and sprout their own industry

In the kitchen with Sacramento’s Erin Alderson of popular food blog Naturally Ella. Alderson often has up to six meal preparations going at once in her bustling kitchen.

In the kitchen with Sacramento’s Erin Alderson of popular food blog Naturally Ella. Alderson often has up to six meal preparations going at once in her bustling kitchen.

Photo by shoka

It was 2007 and Erin Alderson knew she needed to make a change for better health. Her dad had just suffered a heart attack and as he recovered, Anderson reflected not just on his diet—but everyone else in her family’s, too. They weren’t making nutritious choices, she realized. It was a major awakening.

“It was one of those big moments in your life,” she says. “I knew we needed a change.”

But Alderson, then in college, didn’t exactly feel at home in the kitchen.

“My backstory is not that I grew up with an Italian grandmother in the kitchen,” she says with a laugh. “Cooking was definitely not in my blood—fast food was in my blood.”

Alderson found an unlikely solution in blogging. By writing about her experiences and recipes online, she decided that not only could she learn about healthy eating, she could also hold herself publicly accountable.

“I used to LiveJournal and stuff like that so it felt like a natural progression,” she says.

And so she set about learning not just how to cook creatively with vegetables, legumes and whole grains, but also the ins and outs of food photography, web design and marketing. Readers caught on and now cooking—and blogging—isn’t just in Alderson’s blood. It’s her lifeline.

Food blogs make for a huge industry and, arguably, they’ve changed the way we think about food—much less how we buy and eat it. Certainly, Alderson is hardly the only successful (read: profitable) local food blogger. Elise Bauer’s behemoth might be the region’s most successful example with millions of monthly page views and a 2016 acquisition by Fexy Media, a digital brand company. There are seemingly countless others, too, each emphasizing a particular niche or taste, be it the Seasoned Vegetable’s healthy plant-based focus, Dinner then Dessert’s fun, easy crowd-pleasers and so-called “copycat recipes” or Best Friends For Frosting’s sugary dessert-centric lifestyle brand.

Alderson’s site plays up the region’s farm-to-fork abundance. The Sacramento-based blogger’s site Naturally Ella represents a decade’s worth of learning how to cook seasonal plant-based meals. Its success has led to two cookbooks, including 2015’s The Easy Vegetarian, and enough page views (upwards of 500,000 monthly) to make it her primary income thanks to brand partnerships (Bob’s Red Mill, for one) and smartly curated affiliate links to products such as capers, veggie broth and coconut milk.

Local CSAs and farmers markets influence her approach. With sections like “explore an ingredient,” “stock a pantry” and “cook with components,” Naturally Ella encourages its readers to focus not on the whole of a recipe, but rather the sum of its tasty parts.

“Rarely do I set out and say this is the recipe I want to make, rather I go to the farmers market and the [Sacramento Natural Foods] Co-op and say, ’What’s looking good at this time?’” Alderson says. “It’s very important to promote what grows around here.”

Elaine Lander also mines Sacramento’s fruits and vegetables for inspiration. The Seasoned Vegetable blogger worked alongside Alderson, helping with video and social media before stepping out on her own in January.

The need to claim a stake in the blogging world, Lander says, came from a simple desire to connect with others over healthy, plant-based cooking.

Lander, who’d always loved cooking, was mostly self-taught. In college, she adopted a vegetarian diet and cooked meals for her co-op. Later, after studying sustainable agriculture, she worked for a nutrition-education nonprofit. But what came relatively easy to her and brought joy, she found through conversations with friends and family, often intimidated others.

“They were interested in [healthier eating] but didn’t know where to start,” she says. “They could make a steak and pulled pork, but had no idea how to cook broccoli.”

Accordingly, Lander’s blog highlights meal plans and healthy vegetable-centric recipes (she’s no longer exclusively vegetarian) with an emphasis on eating seasonally.

It’s a fun job, Landers says, and an all-consuming one—she spends 40-60 hours a week on the site, dividing her time between research, writing for the blog and her newsletter, marketing and social media. Photographing probably takes the biggest chunk of hours—they call it “food porn” for a reason, after all.

“We eat with our eyes,” Lander says. “If I could give a serving of my food to everyone who visits the blog, there’s no question people would eat my food—so how do I make it appealing and interesting [online]?”

screenshot of naturally ella

And the actual act of cooking? Oh yeah, that.

“Curating content takes a lot of time,” Lander says. “Being in the kitchen is just a subset of what I do.”

Still, even as the blog often keeps her from indulging her passion for cooking, all of those other distractions have paid off. Through word of mouth, targeted searches, marketing and networking, Lander has grown the Seasoned Vegetable’s audience from 5,000 monthly page views this summer to 10,000-15,000. She currently doesn’t run ads but, like Alderson, relies on affiliate links and sponsorships to make money. Specifically, she’s partnered with area wineries—a natural fit given her love for pairing meals with a good glass of the red stuff.

Would she consider placing ads on her site? Perhaps someday if her site garners more traffic but, in the meantime, Landers says she likes its “clean” and unobtrusive layout.

“I want to be mindful of bombarding people with advertisements just to make a few bucks,” she says.

Whatever the income source, food blogs can offer both writers and readers a literal cornucopia of wealth. Their impact on food culture has been, to put it mildly, profound. Both food companies and aspiring online entrepreneurs have found blogging to be a relatively cheap and easy way to target readers with a ravenous appetite for photogenic recipes, tips and inspiration—they also help gauge (and build) an audience for their more expensive hard-copy cookbook counterparts.

And, even as social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram threaten to subsume their archaic internet elders, food blogs remain popular. A 2016 report from Social Samosa, an online trends publication, estimates there are at least 40,000 active food blogs with a combined global readership of two billion people. That’s a lot of hungry eyeballs.

Dinner Then Dessert gets a profitable slice of that number. With its three million monthly page views, Sabrina Snyder’s site earns enough to employ assistants, including a social media manager.

Before she started blogging, Snyder worked as a private chef, and she didn’t realize the online venture could be so profitable.

“I had no idea bloggers could make money—I mean, I used ad blockers and I’d look at a site and think ’Why does she do this?’” Snyder says. “It genuinely didn’t occur to me that bloggers could make money.”

That said, Snyder is now savvy about ad placement and sponsorship. Her site, well-loved for its so-called “copycat recipes”—homemade takes on popular restaurant dishes (think Cheesecake Factory, El Pollo Loco, KFC)—may seem like a natural fit for branded content, but Snyder tries to limit deals to things she actually uses. Currently, her lone partnerships are with an herb company and a natural peanut butter brand.

“I want to make it seem very organic,” she says. “It’s about trust. The reader will trust me until I give them a reason not to.”

For Melissa Johnson, founder of Best Friends for Frosting, it’s also about staying true to one’s values.

The Land Park blogger initially launched as a dessert-focused blog in 2011 before rebranding and expanding it into a lifestyle site in 2013. With its millennial pink aesthetic, bubbly entertaining tips and recipes for delights such as “unicorn fondant cupcakes,” BFFF is reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James or Gywneth Paltrow’s Goop—that is if Paltrow finally eschewed all things macrobiotic and OK’d eating sugar.

In other words, it’s a branding dream—so much so that Johnson and her husband were able to buy a home with its income and currently employ a considerable staff, including a human resources director.

But, Johnson says, she enters every deal with an eye toward honoring her relationship with the site’s visitors—and herself. When advertisers for the BDSM-themed film 50 Shades Darker came calling, for example, she had to say no—no matter how tempting the payoff.

“It would have been thousands and thousands of dollars,” she says. “But I’m Christian, so I had to go back to why I do this.”

Besides, for every ad she turns away, there’s another potential pot of gold waiting. In the coming year, Johnson hopes to land a book deal, launch a podcast and start a series of online classes to show others how to live their best, most profitable online life.

What’s one more blogger after all? There’s room for everyone, Johnson says.

“There are so many people out there with unique ideas,” she says. “I want to teach them how to do this.”